On a Passenger Train to New Orleans

I am not a train nut. But riding in Amtrak’s private sleeper car for the daylong trip from Atlanta to New Orleans – the old Southern Crescent – has me in an unusual state of elation. The perfect tracks bend out away from the dense plumbing of Atlanta traffic. The city acquires a more likeable personality from this sound-buffering window. The whale-like power grants me a security, unbelted, that I never feel in a car. Gathering speed, the train seems almost magic in its defiance of the physical forces that bind a city to a killing routine. Curving through the disenchanted woods of Georgia’s countryside, Train 19 seems immune in this pace from the way time has frozen in the small towns, as if they were halted by the red-flashing gates. Whoever designed the universal train whistle was a musical genius. Or is it America’s train songs and childhood memories that make it such a tender call?

In the age of insomnia, I understand the NextDoor social-media app complaint I read from someone against that train whistle in downtown Decatur at 2 in the morning. Was this necessary, the person wondered. I don’t mind it. My subconscious is comforted by the sound. What is it that stirs me like this?

I remember an almost religious experience I had near Atlanta’s surviving train station – a little architectural jewel on Peachtree Street between Midtown and Buckhead that was recently renovated. Through a window at the station this morning as we waited for the delayed train, I could see the exact location: the bridge on Peachtree crossing over the eight lanes of Interstate 85. Although it’s now decorated with steel glitz from the 1996 Olympics, I recognized the spot. I was not yet 20, and had dropped out of college in Florida after five months studying in London. Back then, I was in that mood of anomie that makes young people know they are “lost” before they give themselves to Jesus or lifelong sobriety. But my identity crisis had a strong sense of place. Atlanta was where I grew up, so like Dickens in London, I was walking its streets when nobody walked them, at night. I walked all the way from my childhood home on a duck pond in Peachtree Heights (Buckhead) downtown and back. I stopped on the Peachtree bridge over the Interstate (a block north of where my mother had attended Washington Seminary) and stared down at the cars zipping by, north and south. Something was very wrong, I felt in that eternity of looking down over the bridge’s side. It wasn’t me that contemplated jumping. It was as if the city had already jumped, and had killed itself under that bridge. I wept.

This morning, I was remembering my bridge experience when a character with a gold front tooth and a saxophone necktie showed up to entertain us in the First Class sitting area. There was something magic about his showing up, like the conjured conductor Ringo Starr played in the TV show “Thomas the Train.” His name was Robert West. “I’m a little late, like the train,” he said, but he was going to fill the half hour with amazing facts about trains and about his life in their midst. He was a graphic designer for the GE contractor for Amtrak, drawing engineering for next-generation locomotives and doing PR on the side. He is also involved in something called Steel Rail Galleries in College Park and is an encyclopedia of train history. He is writing a book about trains and race he says he’s calling “From Chains to Trains to Change.” Both his grandfathers had belonged to the Pullman Porters, the legendary union of Black men who cooked for and served white First Class train passengers in the pride of their dark uniforms and cylindrical caps (still worn by Amtrak conductors), but who also won decent wages from the powerful train companies and quietly brought Black weekly newspapers South from cities like Chicago and Baltimore. Pullman Porters are said to have nourished the Great Migration and laid a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. A. Phillip Randolph and Thurgood Marshall were both Pullman Porters. Mr. West said one of his grandfathers, in particular, taught him everything.

I asked him about how and why the great private railway companies of America had abandoned passenger rail service. I didn’t know this history, but suspected that they had stopped using their public-rights-of-way for a public good only to rake in more private profit. Mr. West said the private railroads had indeed abandoned passenger rail service, which is why the federal government created Amtrak in 1973. It was originally an emergency response to a crisis. That crisis – the near-death of passenger train service – was coming to a head around the time I stood on that Peachtree Street bridge. Maybe my despair over watching the endless flow of cars below me was a blind grief over what cars had finally done to my hometown. Atlanta had started as a railroad terminus and in the heyday of passenger trains had two huge stations downtown, Union and Terminus. Mr. West described the architectural features of those two stations as if they were the two cathedrals of this secular city, now gone. The private railroad companies like CSX and Norfolk Southern, he said, have made tons more money (though freight fell in the pandemic and is weak in the current economy). Why did they abandon passenger service? One word, he said: Greed. Not just the greed of the railroad companies, but the demand for the individual freedom of cars for everyone, for every need.

Amtrak survived the emergency and is looking even better today, Mr. West said. It has received $66 billion from the infrastructure law signed by “the current Administration.”

The private freight lines still have their dominance and lobbyists. We had to stop several times on our way to New Orleans so that freight trains could move first, even though Amtrak pays to use the rails that the private corporations have managed to secure for themselves over the decades. As I learned at a neighborhood hearing last week, Atlanta’s proposals for light rail rapid transit must play supplicant in a similar fashion to use CSX’s rights-of-way.

But the ride was an epiphany, a sacrament of transportation. I unfolded a hinged leaf on my little side table for a card game of solitaire, and admired its thick steel, like something out of the Bell Bomber Plant of the 1940s. To lock our sliding door, there was an ingenious double mechanism of steel, like nothing I’d ever seen in door locks. “I wonder if Mr. West drew a graphic design of that before it was put on all the latest sleeper cars,” my wife said. The last time we had the satisfaction of unlocking that device, we heard a conductor whoop it up, “We’re in New Orleans, hoo-ee, end of the line.”

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A way to read Hershel’s utterances

Regarding the two Black candidates in the looming Georgia runoff for the U.S. Senate, too much has been said and written already. But the insight I heard from a panelist at the Candler School of Theology two days after the Nov. 8 election seemed worthy of deeper thought. I’ve been thinking about her comments for a week now.

Professor Andra Gillespie’s insights may benefit from her unusual “intersectionality,” as academics like to say about overlapping identity categories. She is Black, an associate professor of political science, and media-savvy enough to be a frequent guest for Bill Nigut (moderator of the panel) on his Georgia public radio program, “Political Rewind.” But she is also an evangelical Christian. It was startling to hear her not only “self-identify” that way, but to explain more than once the position of evangelical Christians like herself: that Jesus Christ is Lord and that they are redeemed by faith in his death and Resurrection. Just like that, said not as preaching but just a fact articulated in rapid-fire on an academic panel at liberal-Methodist Emory University.

Prof. Andra Gillespie

So, her insight was this. When Hershel Walker uses the language of personal forgiveness and redemption, even if he gets the words wrong, evangelical Christians get it. He’s one of them, because he has enough of the right words: saved, redeemed, healed, pro-life. She didn’t mean this cynically. In fact, everybody on the panel agreed that Hershel Walker’s religious faith was sincere, not like his friend Trump’s. It was a diverse panel, politically and religiously: Nigut, Republican consultant Eric Tanenblatt (two who self-identified as Jewish), Gillespie and Michael Thurmond, the Black CEO of deep blue DeKalb County who was a civil rights activist and almost went into the ministry.

More devastatingly, when he accuses Warnock of being a fake pastor, Christian evangelicals get that, too, she said. Senator Warnock may be a “Reverend” and occupying the very pulpit that was Martin Luther King Jr.’s in Atlanta, but he’s that kind of Christian who, to evangelicals, has the education of a Pharisee, not the heart of Biblical Christianity. He’s pro-abortion, they say.

For example, take Walker-supporter Johanna Hollis, one of a balance-scale of six voters the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently profiled from Milledgeville, Ga. “I’d rather take someone who is a redeemed sinner, is self-aware, who is willing to admit” mistakes in life, Hollis said. She’s seen Walker up close in his campaign. “He is one of the most kind, gentle giants I have ever seen.”

I don’t know if right-wing media is accurate in its drum-beat about Warnock being the most extreme advocate in the Senate for “abortion on demand” at any time of pregnancy up to birth. Warnock doesn’t address the attack, as far as I can tell.

I am fed up with the political captivity of the abortion “issue.” For years and years, as a journalist and an Episcopalian, I explored the nuances of this as a religious, moral and Constitutional issue. But no one talks about it as a moral issue anymore (even if moral language is used). No one wants to revive Roe v. Wade (with adjustments like the Casey decision as time and science advance), because those were messy compromises. (Sorry, but I am persuaded that only compromise between “state interest” and “privacy” – in the fuzzy middle where most Americans poll – can shield this moral issue from being a toxic political “Murder vs. Women” issue.) On the right of this compromise, you have the Babylonian captivity for Evangelical Christians, and on the left, a shibboleth for Democrats (“my body, my choice,” which has become a code for a Democratic voting coalition, a cause without a rebel).

A brief aside on this as a moral and religious issue. The philosopher Alastair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue makes an elaborate case that moral arguments such as pro-life and pro-choice are interminable today because we’ve lost the original classical Greek basis for moral discourse – the virtues. It’s like the situation in the sci-fi novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, he says, in which fragments of science and Judeo-Christian faith are recovered and revered in 2600 A.D., but without a Church or the scientific method. In short, he says, our moral arguments today are not only unpersuasive and interminable. They’re incoherent.

“We are witnessing two dimensions of Christian faith, both the justice dimension and the mercy dimension,” the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Franklin Jr. told the New York Times. Franklin is a professor in moral leadership at Candler who was in the audience for the panel, along with many of his students.

Something else makes the Warnock-Walker runoff a mess, besides religion. It’s race. One of Franklin’s Black theology students at the Candler panel asked why the church, meaning liberal Black pastors, couldn’t do more to expose Walker’s hypocrisy and the racism of his white supporters. He cited the viral YouTube sermon of the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of a predominantly Black megachurch in DeKalb County, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

Bryant’s “We Don’t Need a Walker” sermonette was both political (pro-Warnock, anti-Walker) and revivalist. It worked up the worshippers to lifting hands toward heaven and praising God. He began with a sneer at the Georgia Republican Party for moving Walker from Texas to Georgia “because change was taking place too fast in the post-antebellum South.” He used Biblical codes for the victory of two Democrats for Senate on Jan. 5, 2021: There were “principalities” not prepared to send a Black man (Warnock) and a Jewish man (Jon Ossoff) to represent the state in the Senate (which, of course, must approve justices for the U.S. Supreme Court). So they picked another Black man “to delude us.” They thought a football would represent “us” better than a degree in philosophy. “They thought we were so. . .stupid that we would elect the caricature of a stereotypical broken Black man as opposed to someone who was educated and erudite and focused.” The emotion rose from there. “Yall aren’t ready for me today,” he said hoarsely, just warming up.

Oh, Lord. The lofty education of Warnock can play both ways – Pharisee or WEB DuBois? I saw Warnock’s one debate with Walker, and I saw Warnock at a rally with Ossoff by his side. I have to admit, I was disappointed in Warnock. It’s not fair to compare him with King, of course. But it does seem that, for all the strength in his position and education, there’s an odd weakness in the man. I couldn’t admit that to myself – for clearly he is a much better Senator than Walker could ever be. But when Prof. Gillespie explained how evangelicals could de-code Walker’s odd ramblings to match their worldview identity, I could see it. But here’s my thought on that. They seem to want to short-cut a moral revolution that awaits the Coming of the Kingdom, or at least something like the centuries it took for humanity to reject human sacrifice or African slavery.

But Gillespie was not as gullible as many of her fellow evangelicals, white or Black. She called out Walker for his showing no real evidence of repentance, or even acknowledging that his admitted relationships with many women have been sins of fornication and adultery (“Let’s call that out,” she said.) Meanwhile, some of what Walker (and Ron DeSantis, etc.) say in the name of Christian faith, she said, is just plain wrong. They must’ve missed their Sunday school lessons, she said, and should be taken off and taught some basics of Christianity.

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Atlanta’s Charlie Loudermilk

You could say Buckhead has changed. The place where there used to be a humble diner and neon Coca Cola sign at the intersection of Peachtree and Roswell roads is now Charlie Loudermilk Park. Metro Music is gone, but the Buckhead Theater has been twinklingly renovated (with a donation from Charlie Loudermilk) next to the luxury high-rise Hanover Buckhead Village, where you can rent a penthouse apartment for $8,096 a month.

Today, Sept. 8, topping the marquee of the Buckhead Theater is a gigantic megapixel portrait of Charlie Loudermilk, doubled, with the legend “R.I.P. Charlie Loudermilk, 1927-2022.” Across the street in the grass lawn park, about a dozen men and women dressed for the funeral are posing, smiling for an iPhone snapshot around the slightly larger-than-life-sized bronze statue of R. Charles Loudermilk Jr. They are a diverse group, including a man who says Charlie helped him immigrate from Mumbai to run an Aaron Rents franchise in Pennsylvania.

Charlie, who built Aaron Rents from its humble start two blocks away, helped transform Buckhead.

But in a way, Buckhead hasn’t changed. It survives and prospers, as always, with a particular spirit of leadership called the Atlanta Way. In a word, it’s a spirit of compromise, of closed-door public agreement between white and black rainmakers to avoid “bad publicity.” A Wall Street Journal feature on Charlie Loudermilk’s 4,500-acre quail-hunting plantation, furniture factories and recreational facilities in far South Georgia calls his way “benign capitalism.” In the article, Charlie calls himself a “conservative white Republican.” But that was only a guise, or at least only one ingredient of his makeup.

You needed to attend the grandiose funeral, as I did, to begin to understand the alloy that was Charlie Loudermilk. Understand that, and you begin to understand Buckhead, and Atlanta.

The service (he died Aug. 3) was in the palatial New Sanctuary of Peachtree Road Methodist Church (founded, 1925), with gleaming organ pipes (half underwritten by Charlie Loudermilk) that looked to me like a gothic dream of Atlanta’s latest skyline.

The vast black-robed choir filled the ranked steps in front on the left and right, women and men, young and old, black and white. Their bouncy conductor in prim bowtie and crewcut, Trey Clegg, is known around Atlanta for his musical mission of “Reconciliation, Equity, and Healing.” Powerful solo singers lifted the somewhat formal crowd to stand, sing, clap on the upbeat, and even applaud. The Dixieland jazz band that would lead the congregation afterwards to Charlie Loudermilk Park and the Buckhead Theater was one I could’ve joined with clarinet: “Bo Emerson and Brasstown Tonic.” Walter, my brother, was on trombone. The songs were tricky arrangements, but encoded in our local genetics: “God Bless America,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “O Happy Day,” and the sentimental favorite, “Georgia on My Mind.”

On one level, it looked like the greatest memorial service money could buy.

But deeper than Charlie’s money was his poverty. He grew up poor, and that gave him sympathy with just about everybody he met. This was the message given at the funeral by Charlie’s close life-long friend, Andy Young.

Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, Congressman and U.N. Ambassador, described how he and Charlie, along with three other powerful Atlanta figures, would get together whenever there was trouble, another crisis. The other three figures were Herman Russell, the black head of a construction firm who used his position to advance Civil Rights in Atlanta; Jesse Hill Jr., a black insurance company magnate who used his influence similarly, and John Portman, the white architect-developer who pioneered the futuristic style of jewel-lighted atriums that began in Atlanta.

“Every time there was trouble,” Young said, “we got together, we got together and would talk and we felt better.”

Maybe it was the trouble, the crisis, that reminded these men that they emerged from struggle. They would argue about who grew up poorest. Once, they decided that the winner of that game would be the one who grew up without indoor plumbing. Herman Russell was in a poor black area of Atlanta that got sewer lines early. Charlie grew up in a poor white section off Howell Mill Road, also with plumbing. It turned out, Young said, that the winner of the most-poor game, by that measure, was John Portman.

(John Portman and Charlie Loudermilk are said to be the two models Tom Wolfe embellished to create his character Charlie Croker in his novel A Man in Full, though Charlie Loudermilk’s part was probably merely to provide the quail-hunting plantation for research, not the brash personality of Wolfe’s protagonist.)

Young, a middle-class son of a teacher and dentist in New Orleans, came to Atlanta because Martin Luther King Jr. dragged and dropped him here as one of King’s lieutenants in the Civil Rights Movement. In their march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights in 1965, it was Aaron Rents that provided the tents and trucks, he said. “I don’t know if we ever paid for that,” he said. “But we got a bill for it.”

Charlie was that way. He counted dollars, like the Scottish-stingy mascot of Aaron Rents, but was quietly unstinting in his generosity. I’d heard the story of his donating tents to the Selma March, but I’d also heard that he kept it secret so that the white Atlanta business community wouldn’t find out. His all-out support for Young as Atlanta mayor in 1980 let everybody know what kind of a “conservative white Republican” he was.

Andy Young has always been a believer in free-enterprise as a driver of social and racial progress. He was the Civil Rights veteran who served on corporate boards. Now he is 90, moves bow-legged and unsteady. But his message for those remembering Charlie Loudermilk was clear and radiant. Overcoming poverty was not just a black thing, he said. It was something every human being has inside, somewhere.

And here is where Andy’s preacher role showed itself. Growing up poor gave Charlie Loudermilk a heart not just for the poor, but for everybody he met, all over the world. He loved people. In his final years, he “adopted” the Zambian family that helped take care of him.

Andy Young suggested this came from recognizing that everybody has some inner poverty, and that there is, sure enough, a balm in Gilead.

“The hand of God has moved through the streets of Atlanta,” he testified.

A loud drum kicked off a happy rhythm and the Dixieland band led the people out onto a Peachtree Road sidewalk with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

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Cherokee Footprints

When I’m in these soft green hills, around a high lake impounded around 1930 in North Georgia, I wake to an awareness of the Cherokee. By their absence, in this silence with the occasional hoot of a barred owl, I feel their presence. I should pray a land-acknowledgement at the dawn of each day here.

What European settlement did to the early dwellers across the continent was, and is, a monstrous violation of the very rule of law that the Europeans brought. But we sometimes generalize and romanticize the larger, and miss the local history. The Cherokee had a unique history. They adapted, and adopted many European ways. They created a written alphabet and published a newspaper. They built log cabins based on the models that the Scots-Irish and German immigrants brought into Appalachia. Some of the natives and invaders intermarried.

Bone to Bone, by Douglas B. Wright

But treaties were trashed, over and over, for 100 years. The Cherokee were pushed north by northwest, to Standing Peachtree north of present-day Atlanta, to the hills of North Georgia, then to the Trail of Tears out of Georgia in the 1830s.

A washroom of the house I’m in is wallpapered, as a kind of joking nod to mountain culture, in pages of the weekly Pickens County Progress from the 1970s. One article is headlined “Cherokee Footprints.” It is “Part II of No. 7,” apparently a newspaper series based on the local writer digging up county records. The article simply lists 16 lots from “District 11, Section 2, Gilmer County” from “The Cherokee Land Lottery Book.” The land lots were “drawn” (i.e. won for free by lottery) by individuals with Anglo names from counties all over lowland Georgia. Each lot was titled “Indian improvement,” not to say “stolen from. . .” Probably from the 1830s, they were awarded after the discovery of gold in North Georgia. For example: Lot 99: Indian improvement, 50 acres, Coosawattee River, South of Ellijay (you may know this river from the novel “Deliverance”), Drawn by Samuel Barksdale, soldier, Johnson’s, Warren County. Lot 120: Indian improvement, 5 acres on Yukon Road south of East Ellijay. Drawn by George Gambell, Kendrick’s, Monroe County. And so on.

Margaret Mitchell, the writer, was interested enough in Cherokee history to have participated in a hike to Standing Peachtree in the 1930s. Sponsored by the Atlanta Historical Society, the excursion also included my grandfather, Douglas Wright; his artist friend Athos Menaboni; his friend “Peggy” Mitchell’s brother Stephens, and a Civil War historian named Wilbur Kurtz (who specialized in the Battle of Atlanta).

Sometime later, after Margaret Mitchell had finished writing “Gone with the Wind” but before any publishers knew about it, she wrote a letter to Wilbur Kurtz, introducing herself by reminding him of when they had met.

During the excursion to Standing Peachtree, she reminded Kurtz, “we tried to palm off on Stephens as genuine Cherokee, an idol manufactured by Douglas Wright and Athos Menaboni. . .”

First edition

A cousin of mine just sent me a reference to this letter from the Atlanta History Center. Imagine my grandfather, a man of intimidating formality when I knew him, sculpting a fake Cherokee relic for the fun of it, and attempting a straight-faced hoax on his other best friend, Stephens Mitchell! This was a whimsical side of him and his buddy Menaboni (whose bird paintings today are as treasured locally as original Audubons).

I can see this whimsical side of Douglas Wright – reclusive artist, engineer and mathematician – in two bizarre sculptures in the woods near this house in the mountains. Another cousin saved these two pieces of art he made in his later years, not unlike fake cartoonish idols of a pre-literate culture. One is an abstract assemblage of what could be leg bones. The other is a totem post with an encircling repetition of a face that could be a Polynesian chieftain. As Henry Ford once said, history is bunk.

“Gone with the Wind,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 and became the most successful historical novel in English literature (not to compare it to a certain Russian novel), has been criticized for its history. But the reason Margaret Mitchell wrote that letter to the historian Wilbur Kurtz (who was also a local artist) was that she wanted him to verify her references to Civil War and Reconstruction history.

“In a weak moment,” she wrote in the letter, “I have written a book and the background of the book is Atlanta between 1859 and 1872.” She says her manuscript is in no way a historical novel. “The story is more the effect war and reconstruction had on the characters than on the historical happenings themselves.”

Margaret Mitchell was merely a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal, trying to break into fiction.

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Cornershots

The Roanoke Times occasionally runs short vignettes from readers under the heading “Cornershot.” I had a couple of these published that I’m saving here. Condensation is something you learn from doing a lot of longer writing.

Tranquil Moments Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Dec. 21, 2019

By some stroke of luck, one of our sons has bought a farm on the Blue Ridge Parkway across from an overlook that faces the North Carolina Piedmont. We have been visiting every week this fall, staying in a little house temporarily without water or bathroom, like in the old days.

The Blue Ridge Parkway’s purpose is not transportation but to reveal the “charm and interest of the native American countryside,” wrote Stanley Abbott, the parkway’s resident architect who got it started in the 1930s. Its native-stonework bridges and hemlock and rhododendron passageways make it the loveliest highway east of the Mississippi.

One morning, the tranquil light that fills the house while we have coffee suddenly went dark, then came back. We thought the power had blinked. After a minute, it happened again. Then we realized — a lonely car on the parkway had blocked the rising sun for an instant. Then another.

There was something miraculous about that alignment. The sun comes rolling in from the Outer Banks to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and winks at us in our little parkway house. Outside, I see the shadows of the parkway’s infrequent cars floating across the opposite ridge of cow pastures, the natural boundary of Virginia’s ancient valleys. For a moment, we’re smack on the American hinge.

The Tattoo Taboo
May 20, 2017

Whatever happened to the tattoo taboo?

Remember when only men who had spent hard time in prison or in the lower ranks of the military had tattoos? It was a class thing.

Now it’s an identity thing. Identity is a deep mystery, down there with the secrets of self and soul. Recently have we come to realize its force. Gender identity can’t be hidden away anymore. Our political identity has become more important than rational argument, and persuasion almost impossible against the power of identity.

I have ancestors who took genteel pride in a family crest from Scotland, with a lion rampant bearing a dagger and the Cumming motto: Courage.

They wouldn’t have besmirched the family honor with a tattoo (although an uncle overly enthusiastic about FDR’s National Recovery Administration had the blue eagle and “NRA — We do our part” tattooed on a forearm, just before the NRA was abolished as unconstitutional).

But I wonder what Major Cumming would’ve thought of our second son coming home as a Marine with a tattoo on his chest — of the Cumming heraldic crest. His older brother followed suit.

Even the flagrantly rich are tattooed now. Why else would L’Orléal Paris offer something called Infallible Total Cover, Nude Beige 303?

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A Colossal Mistake

The thing about America that struck Gutzon Borglum was bigness. His parents had emigrated from little Denmark to the Wild West. So when their son John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was born in Bear Lake, Idaho, in 1867, the little guy awoke under big skies in big empty lands. When he was seven, the Borglums moved to Nebraska, which was like Idaho that way.

Gutzon Borglum

It wasn’t just the land and sky, but something about the size of men’s character that seemed almost comically huge. It made America’s story like a big children’s book with full-page illustrations. Europe was always having little wars you had to act out with lots of little metal soldiers, and maybe a painted little Napoleon. America had just one great big war. It was full of giants like Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It was a made-in-America war, and one that made America, the only American war that seemed to matter. True, America had been born in earlier wars. But even in those wars, all that you could imagine was the bigness of men like Washington and Jefferson, or that big painting by Benjamin West called “The Death of General Wolfe.”

Gurtzon Borglum studied painting, seriously, which meant moving to Europe. He studied art in Paris in the early 1890s, had paintings and sculptures shown in the best salons, then moved to London for success in royal circles. He absorbed the Arts and Crafts idea, the British movement that insisted that beauty is never produced by a machine but is almost always present in anything produced by hand in the traditional cottage ways.

He moved to New York, where he made the first piece of sculpture bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sculpted the twelve apostles for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “But he soon turned toward what his wife, Elizabeth Janes Putnam, a scholar in cuneiform and other Middle Eastern scripts, described as ‘the emotional value of volume,’” says his biography in the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Reviving the ancient Egyptian practice of carving gargantuan statues of political figures in natural formations of rock, he executed from a six-ton block of marble a colossal head of President Abraham Lincoln that was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.”

Yesterday, I discovered that Gutzon Borglum lived in 1924 and ‘25 in a beautiful house about a mile from where my wife and I just moved east of Atlanta. In the DeKalb History Center, which occupies the old stone courthouse in the Square in Decatur, Georgia, I saw an exhibit about the town where he lived, Avondale Estates. This was built as a kind of theme-park proto-suburb, a completely Tudor village modeled on Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. (Another bit of history: The first Waffle House was there, now a Waffle House museum. Another bit of history: its ordinance prohibiting yard signs kept it the most white community around Atlanta, since “For Sale” signs were illegal.) The exhibit displayed an article about Gutzon Borglum from the Atlanta Constitution of September 26, 1915.

The article describes Borglum visiting the area several times and getting excited about his plans to carve figures of up to 50 feet height into Stone Mountain, about nine miles northeast of here. He said his colossus would “stand alone in memorial and monumental work in the world.” He had been invited by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and owners of Stone Mountain, newly collaborating as the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial association.

Stone Mountain

When I read this 1915 article on the wall of the Avondale Estates exhibit, I had just finished reading an opinion column in the New York Times that morning about this period, when President Woodrow Wilson was officially segregating the U.S. government and his administration was naming military bases after Confederate generals. Wilson, a religious Southerner who was president of Princeton University, fastened the myth of a “Lost Cause” of honorable Southern warriors into federal policy. “Why America Joined the Cult of the Confederacy,” the column in the Times, points out that this was also a time of community-wide spectacle lynching to terrorize Blacks throughout the Deep South.

The article in The Atlanta Constitution doesn’t say anything about race. It’s all about “patriotic women,” honor, nobility and “the heroism of the confederate cause.” And it seems that Gutzon Borglum, the Danish-American from out West, was fully taken in by this perspective. To him, the Civil War was America’s Iliad, a heroic tragedy worthy of grandiose art. The article quotes at length something he had written in an art magazine about memorializing Lincoln, which was underway in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial.

Borglum didn’t design the statue of a sitting Abraham Lincoln (which was made of Georgia marble), or its giant temple. But he described what they should express. “A simple, honest, sincere, inspired, true creature that knew the straight road and went right through and brushed the unimportant aside. You will pick the particular giants who built this country – Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin. Those men will have an honorable place in that monument, and out of that group, going way back into the early eighteen hundreds, will arise this boy. We will assemble Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Seward, Stanton, and you will see him associated with them down through the friezes that will ornament this temple whenever it is built. . . .On the other side of the monument you will see struggling honestly pushing forward the southern cause, Lee, Stuart, Johnson, and then you will see them all united and the whole thing will close.”

This was how the Civil War looked to a certain artistic mind, as it looked at the time to an overwhelmingly white population outside the South, eager for healing, reunion and progress without having to face the meaning of the Great Migration out of the South. Borglum wasn’t deterred, if he even knew about it, by the “impressive services” held that Thanksgiving of 1915 atop Stone Mountain by a “new” secret organization calling itself the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (according to another Atlanta Constitution article on the wall of exhibit on Avondale Estates).

Borglum moved to Avondale Estates in 1924 to begin overseeing the carving of Confederate leaders on horseback, embossed on the side of the great granite outcropping. They remain there today. But the sculptor got only as far as the head of Robert E. Lee in 1925. That’s when Gutzon Borglum had a falling out with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and left. The split was said to be about money. I do wonder, though, if it was really about vision.

Borglum found another monumental project after that. He moved to South Dakota and created Mount Rushmore.

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Anna Karenina

The characters in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are not allegories or didactic figures that project the dogmas of Tolstoy’s Christian thought (as he does in The Kingdom of God is Within You). They are fully formed human beings, living in their place and time on stage where Tolstoy creates them. Their background gives them life, not an excuse, each having a moral place in the aristocratic social order of Russia in the 1860s. None is without sin, but one who seems to come close to Tolstoy’s Christian ideal is a minor character called Mademoiselle Varenka.

Varenka shows up at a summer spa with her invalid guardian, Madame Stahl. She appears serenely content taking care of Madame Stahl and other invalids who need her help around the spa. Her physical presence – “handsome rather than plain, in spite of the sickly hue of her face. She would have been a good figure, too, if it had not been for her extreme thinness and the size of her head, which was too large for her medium height” – was a fascinating attraction to “Kitty” Shtcherbatsky.

Kitty was in torment, having squandered her moment of high vitality, beauty and potential by rejecting the marriage proposal of the idealist Konstantin (Levin) Dmitrievitch Koznishev in expectation of a better proposal from the dashing military officer Vronsky. Kitty loved both, but in different ways that she failed to understand in the bloom of her innocence. Her rejection of Levin, and Vronsky’s rejection of Kitty (though nothing was said by either, Vronsky fell hopelessly in love with married Anna Karenina at that fateful ball in Moscow) left Kitty both empty (thinking of Levin) and humiliated (thinking of Vronsky). She fell sick, and so was at the spa, where Varenka’s appearance seemed to offer an answer to Kitty’s emptiness and humiliation. Kitty was obsessively attracted to Varenka.

As many Christians today might recognize, Varenka was in the perfect position to take Kitty’s desire to know Varenka’s secret as an opportunity to “share the Gospel.” Varenka related to everyone with friendly ease, showing her social polish, musical skill and education with Kitty’s circle but also responding gracefully to any duties or demands from the hideous invalids. The watering-spot scene conjures Jesus’s miracle on the Sabbath at the pool in Bethesda in John 5, where the invalid was unable to reach the pool whenever the water was troubled. (I have seen similar watering spots in Rockbridge Baths and Hot Springs, the Virginia equivalent in the 1870s of that Russian scene).

But Varenka doesn’t preach. She doesn’t seem to be burdened with some gospel obligation, other than her duties as an adopted orphan of the sickly Madame Stahl. With amazing intuition, Varenka tells Kitty not to be ashamed of her experience with men in her earlier days, because all of that is unimportant. Kitty wonders then, well, what IS important? She asks in passionate silence with her eyes: “What is it, what is this of such importance that gives you such tranquility? You know, tell me!” Varenka doesn’t say, as if she can’t hear the question and maybe has no answer, but goes on doing her duty with “the calm and dignity so much to be envied.”

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The Aerobatic Swift

Out on the red-tiled terrace off the top floor of our Collegio Internazionale, there are many miracles. In one direction, the pride of Urbino – a bell tower that can surprise with alleluias through the old brick alleyways, and behind that, the glory of the Duomo. In the other direction, nature’s plotted palette of slant fields, flowers and row trees, backed by the two mountains framing Furlo Gorge.

Another rooftop gathering, this one hosting visitors from journalism programs: Rachele Kanigel from San Francisco State U., left, talking to Deni Chamberlin; Gregory Pitts from Middle Tennesssee; Sam Fulwood III, dean of the J school at American U, and Uche Onyebadi, chair of the journalism department at Texas Christian.

But these are nothing compared to the miracle of the swifts.

They dart overhead in the bluest of skies, clearing it of invisible bugs as if to make that sky more perfect than human imagination could make it. When it’s cleared by the swifts, God brings on the pinks and reds of sunset.

I have been out on the empty terrace at dawn, pretending I know yoga but really just there to watch for the swifts. There are a lot more of them at dusk, when the ieiMedia faculty family gathers, furnishing the terrace with chairs, tables and a feast of local foods and wine.

The swifts seem to strafe and dive-bomb us like Spitfires. They are swifter than the eye, or our cameras, can follow.

I’ve read that swifts may be the fastest creatures on earth, built for speed and surprise. The Romans named them “no legs,” because they never saw them land, though we know they rest in vertical surfaces inside towers and chimneys. They are elegantly designed for speed, in points like a stellar polyhedron. The wings taper to dagger points, the small head a mere bump, the tail a tapered point until it divides like a clothes pin to make a quick turn. The quick turns outsmart – out-dart – the bugs (except those lucky enough to enter through our wide-open bedroom window). A small squadron of swifts whooshes over our heads, and we instinctively and pointlessly duck, then laugh.

I remember the end of a little poem by Robert Graves, “Flying Crooked.” It’s about the cabbage white butterfly, an obvious metaphor for those of us who feel a little like Robert Graves – fools whose “crooked flight” (through education, wilderness and life) brings us to miracles like Urbino. Compared to the amazing swifts, we’re all like that crooked-flying butterfly.

He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Urbino, from atop the Fortezza. In the background, Mt. Pietralata and Mt. Paganuccio.
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Lovesong of J. Alfred Somebody

I am Lazarus come from the dead to tell you all. No, that’s not what I meant at all.

Still positive from Covid today, staying positive in my room. But I’m more like those perplexed in the marketplace on the day of Pentecost. I watch TV police-dramas in which Italian is dubbed on American actors pretending to be actual Americans who murdered a lover, and I can’t really follow it. It’s not enough to know every other word. Questo I know. And something about sbaglio.

Libby, on the rooftop terrace

I look up the Italian for “wrong.” They don’t seem to have a word for wrong in the moral sense. It’s just “non” something, like niente di male (you haven’t done anything wrong). Sbaglio means a mistake. Morally wrong is non giusto, not fair, unjust.

Right and wrong, in Italian roots, are about justice. In high school I learned to recite Cicero’s famous oration on the Cataline conspiracy. O tempora, o mores. I haven’t studied Cicero since then, but I believe that he and other Italian political philosophers (Livy, Machiavelli, Scorsese, Coppola) gave justice its architecture. Justice sits on Roman columns.

For something to be right, it needs to be fair. But life isn’t fair. Is it fair that I got Covid, even as I was doing everything right? Machiavelli had an answer for that, according to a great lecture I just watched on “The Prince” by a Cambridge historian. The unfairness of life was a fact called fortuna. To the classical Romans, the randomness of good luck and bad was almost a goddess, Fortuna. Machiavelli agreed.

But fortuna wasn’t fate. It could be coaxed and opposed, to some extent, by the other great force in human affairs that Machiavelli seized on, called virtù. There’s a whole history of philosophy behind that word, including Greek ethics, Roman “manliness” and the Christian cardinal virtues. But Machiavelli gave all that a Machiavellian twist. The ethical “virtù” of a good guy would be fine if people were good, he said. But they’re not. So an individual with virtù needed the good judgment to know when to be “just,” based on a provisional trust, when to have “courage” (a virtue, but one shared with an animal, the lion) and when to be “prudent” (like a fox, even with guile and deception). But what about Christian ethics, and Cicero? Machiavelli has a thin smile that says: Don’t be stupid.

But I keep going back to fortuna. I wonder if beneath this is something that theoretical science seems to have verified – randomness. At the subatomic level, as in the cosmos, there seems to exist a pure randomness. There’s a randomness, too, in the mutations that make life evolve, and triggered our daughter’s cancers. We create a surrogate for this randomness when we shuffle cards to play a game, but pure randomness is beyond simply not knowing the physical laws and conditions of something that seems random. In my humble opinion, it’s not even in God’s control, but it’s at the heart of Creation, beyond any laws. Then there are laws governing the order of things, and that’s at the other extreme of meaninglessness – because pure order admits of no freedom. Cell division and energy exchanges, animal behavior and optics, all following a solemn order.

And that leaves us humans. . .in the middle. In the muddle. Italy seems to be the perfect place to be there, whether sick or well, among friends and the beauty of a Renaissance city. I can sneak out onto a tiled terrace for warming sun, or to watch the swifts darting through the twilight and far below, little cars winding away on a curve that passes a little road called Niccolò Machiavelli.

I recognized our interpreter from 2019 — here, in the Piazza della Repubblica, wearing the laurel wreath of a new graduate of the University of Urbino. (She didn’t recognize me, but gave a nice pose with unicorn horn and fantastic dress.)
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Room with a View

I am in an unusual prison cell, isolated in Room 54 of the Collegio Internazionale, in Urbino, because I have Covid. The Italians require seven days of isolation from the time of my “extremely positive” test results yesterday afternoon. The pharmacist gave me the document for that (got my passport back, but forgot the 3 euros change for the 12-euro test. Brain fog.). I’ll need another test, with certified negative result, after seven full days. Seven is better than 40, which is the Italian word that gave us “quarantine,” from the old practice of having crews stay on board in anchorage in the days of plagues.

What’s most unusual about this cell is its view out double windows that can be flung open. It’s a beautiful view.  The aged terracotta tiles slanting up on the building 10 feet away, across the narrow cobblestone street four floors down, is all I can see from my sickbed. But leaning out of the window, I can see a whole gorgeous world. In an instant, I fall in love with that world again. “There is no world without Verona’s walls,” Romeo says, and I see what he means. To the right, beyond more slanting roofs of fishscale tiles and TV antennae, I see the campanile bell tower and dome of the Duomo, Urbino’s cathedral. To the left, I see beyond more tile roofs the green landscape of cedar-fringed hills, terraced farmland with the yellow flowers called ginestra, and the beginning of the Apennine mountains. Looking up, the deep blue sky of an Adriatic morning. Down, the alley that is no longer boisterous with University of Urbino students yelling and singing their obscene graduation song, but at peace.

This peace floats up, like the breeze I see gently playing with the tablecloth hanging on the railing next to clothes on clotheslines. Italians know that sunlight is better than an energy-wasting dryer. The Italians will need to find more ways to reduce their dependence on Russian energy now. But it’s not politics that strikes me, looking out this window on the world. It’s sheer beauty.

In his novel “Lancelot,” not his best, Walker Percy has a character who narrates the entire book from a jail cell. The character is clearly crazy, but it’s in his sickness that he sees things more clearly. And he notices how the narrowness of his jail cell’s view of some tiny slice of New Orleans gives him the attention needed to really see. That’s what I feel looking out this window. Libby has moved to the room on the other side of one wall. She has brought me coffee.

If this is Covid for a 70-year-old man fully vaccinated with one booster, I pray for the protection needed by anyone who has not been vaccinated. I have the symptoms of a bad cold. But I know this highly contagious variant of Covid-19 (I’m sure I caught it from a 30-second conversation with three of our students at the open-night reception, one of whom tested positive two days later) can be deadly for the unvaccinated. It is wilding through the body, looking for weird ways to wreck havoc. Fortunately, I can tell, my immune system is there to stop it. And that’s why I feel rotten, but alive to this incredible window view.

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